A Poem about Translating Poems


I’ve been reading Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956-1998 out on the dock and came across a poem that touches on a tough topic: translating poetry. Ironically, Herbert’s poem is translated, Polish to English, so it’s a level of weird on top of weird reading the poem.

What I like about Herbert (yes, I’m going through a Herbert phase) is his combination of erudition and humor. Such a great pair! Interested in translation issues? Erudition? Humor, maybe? Give a listen:

On Translating Poetry
by Zbigniew Herbert

Like a clumsy bumblebee
he alights on a flower
bending the fragile stem
he elbows his way
through rows of petals
like pages of a dictionary
he wants in
where the fragrance and sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and can’t taste anything
he pushes on
until he bumps his head
against the yellow pistil

and that’s as far as he gets
it’s too hard
to push through the calyx
into the root
so the bee takes off again
he emerges swaggering
loudly humming:
I was in there
and those
who don’t take his word for it
can take a look at his nose
yellow with pollen

— translated¬† by Alissa Valles




    • He has a way. His prose poems (reading them now) are especially clever. I think I would’ve liked this guy. If I spoke Polish, I mean. I only know a few food words and many swear words from my babcia.


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